Deb Vanasse: Writer Makes Dirt

Forgive me if I seem a bit obsessed by

In December, we moved into a newly built house on an acre of land
situated three-quarters of a mile from the Pacific Ocean, along the north coast
of Oregon. It’s a splendid setting, a coastal plain wedged between expansive
forests of Douglas firs and Sitka spruce, trafficked by an abundance of
waterfowl, shorebirds, deer, elk, and the neighborhood’s resident pheasants.

When spring arrived—early here as it did
in Alaska—we set about trying to wrangle what’s essentially the top of a sand
dune into something that resembles a yard and a set of gardens. Into the sand,
we tilled in dozens and dozens of cubic yards of compost, hoping for a mix that
approaches (in the garden beds, at least) a sandy loam, which would ensure tender,
searching roots the balance of nutrients, drainage, and water they seek.

Making dirt is no small undertaking.
Neither is planting 1800 square feet (fenced to exclude elk and deer) of fruit
orchard, berries, and vegetables, not to mention foundation plantings around
the house and along the driveway plus a huge kitchen garden on the beyond the
patio. Once the planting is done, the weeding begins, and the wrangling with

After full days of writing and
editing—interrupted only by the dog, who insists on her daily jaunt along the
beach or through the coastal forest—I spend evenings with my hands in the dirt.
Fresh off the ocean, the breeze stirs scents of lavender, sage, and clove-spiked
dianthus from my fledgling yard. Warblers trill and a mourning dove coos. The
work never ends, and I somehow don’t want it to.

In The
Botany of Desire
, author Michael Pollan points out that in gardening, our
interplay with nature is more complex than it seems. We evolve with our plants,
which may shape us almost as much as we shape them. Wildness lurks at the
periphery of our every effort, which is as it should be.

The entire enterprise of my evenings in
the dirt feels to me a lot like the writing I do by day. The process is messy,
the work intense. Challenges pop up one after the other, an endless loop of whack-a-mole
(the mole being, quite literally, one of the problems I am destined to meet in
my gardens).

Then there’s the harvest. The strawberries
are ripening now, bright and tasty. I run the numbers in my head—what I paid
for a flat of healthy plants, an annual yield extrapolated from my daily
gleanings, the three- to five-year life span I can expect of the plants. The cost
of fertilizer, tools, fence, dirt, time. In practical terms, I’d likely do
better buying strawberries at the store or at our local Sunday Market.

But as every gardener—and every
writer—knows, the actual reward is not to be measured against costs. We engage
in these wild and wacky enterprises not because they make sense. We do it for the
magic, that such a thing—a (nearly) perfect red strawberry, a story, a novel, a
poem—rises up from the most ordinary elements, and we, uncertain and
bumbling—get to play some part in the transformation.

of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse welcomes her Alaska friends to visit in her new
home. She especially welcomes those who enjoy weeding. Her latest book is Wealth
Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold.

1 thought on “Deb Vanasse: Writer Makes Dirt”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Great comparison, Deb. I mentioned Wealth Woman in my post on Romancing the Genres today. 🙂

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